Catalog shopping - Business in United States of America

Catalog shopping: Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck

Catalog shopping: Postal Innovations and Growth Spurts

Catalog shopping: Technology and the Internet

Definition: Purchase of consumer and business products by mail, based on their descriptions in print or online catalogs

Significance: The advent of catalog shopping created a new source of revenue and a new business model for marketers and manufacturers, who emphasized to consumers the increased convenience and selection available when ordering products by mail. Catalog outlets contributed to the growth and diversity of American retail businesses.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with starting the first mail-order business in America. In 1744, he published a catalog featuring scientific and academic materials. Franklin understood that customer satisfaction was the key to repeat business and offered a guarantee: “Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present.”

The early nineteenth century brought changes to the American landscape that encouraged the growth of the mail-order business. The steam engine, steamboat, and railway provided a distribution system that enabled merchandisers to transport goods quickly and efficiently. Newspapers, books, and magazines became cheaper to produce; literacy was on the rise; and the U.S. Post Office (later U.S. Postal Service) expanded into agrarian areas.

By the 1850’s, specialized catalogs were a fixture in provincial households, offering goods that were difficult to find in local stores. Early catalogers included Orvis, which sold fishing tackle; E. Remington & Son, which sold guns and ammunition; and D. M. Ferry, which offered seeds. After the U.S. Civil War, direct mail came into its own. Several factors contributed to this growth: Increased immigration and a higher birthrate swelled the rural population. Catalogs kept farmers up to date on the latest inventions and offered the convenience of purchasing machinery, animals, and seeds through the mail. Finally, postage, manufacturing, and shipping costs declined after the war.

Pegge Bochynski

Further Reading

  • Gorman, Leon. L. L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006.Written by a former president of L. L. Bean and the grandson of the founder, this authoritative account offers an insider look at the challenges of building and maintaining an iconic brand. 
  • Hoge, Cecil C., Sr. The First Hundred Years Are the Toughest: What We Can Learn from the Century of Competition Between Sears and Wards. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1988. Detailed study of the fierce rivalry between the two largest mail order houses in the United States. 
  • Marcus, James. Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Juggernaut. New York: New Press, 2004. Recounts the shaky initial rise of from the point of view of a literary expert who produced and edited reviews for the site. 
  • Montgomery, M. R. In Search of L. L. Bean. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. Folksy look at the founder of L. L. Bean, family rivalry, and the societal trends that shaped the company. 
  • Weil, Gordon L. Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A. New York: Stein and Day, 1977. History of the company that focuses on the contributions of Richard W. Sears, Julius Rosenwald, and Robert Wood. 

See also: Credit card buying; Fuller Brush Company; Home Shopping Network; Online marketing; Retail trade industry; Sears, Roebuck and Company; Tupperware; Warehouse and discount stores.

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